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I am sorry to have to speak in the debate, but although all rural Members are used to the occasional pub or filling station closure in their constituency, the closure of local sub-post offices in villages in my constituency happens too often. On
"Dear Mr. Walter
Winterborne Whitechurch Post Office Branch . . .
We wrote in August 2000, advising of the temporary closure of the Post Office branch . . . At that time, we were unable to identify a suitable candidate or premises".
That was the second time that that post office had closed in five years—they had previously found a suitable candidate. The letter continued:
"The purpose of this letter therefore is to ask if you are aware of any changes".
On the same day from the same gentleman on the same headed paper, I received a letter about the Glanvilles Wootton post office branch, which had also closed in 2000. It said:
"Do you know of any changes in the circumstances within Glanvilles Wootton which may help us restore a service to our customers?"
The first post office that I mentioned at Bryanston was located in a small village shop and its closure was involuntary. Everyone in the village knew where the post office was. Those who used its facilities knew that if they went to the village shop the post office counter was located at the back. But that was not good enough for those who run the post office network. They made it a condition that the person who ran that post office—for only a couple of days a week—would have to relocate the counter so that it was more prominent within the shop. The capital expenditure that would have been required for that would have been out of all proportion to the shop's commercial viability, so on that basis the postmaster declined to renew his contract because he did not have the resources.
So far I have mentioned just three post offices, but the list is not complete. During the last five years, my constituency has lost post offices at Tarrant Gunville; Pimperne, where it has fortunately re-opened; Weston; Lydlinch; and Hazelbury Bryan, where I am also pleased to say that a year ago I was invited to cut the tape as we re-opened the post office. However, the net loss of village post offices is symptomatic of an underlying problem. The village postmasters are under pressure. Forgive me if the evidence is anecdotal; it is none the less valuable. Several village postmasters have told me that village businesses no longer buy stamps from them because they are being offered stamps at a discount direct from the Post Office.
Car tax is a matter for the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency, not for the Post Office or the DTI, but in the interest of joined-up government, surely it would be good news for village post offices if the Government could give some encouragement to the DVLA to allow all sub-post offices to sell car tax. A village garage in my constituency has within its premises a shop and a post office. One can buy a car, insure it and have an MOT done there, but one cannot buy a tax disc.
The key threat, which has already been mentioned, is the changeover in the benefits business. Nothing in the Minister's opening remarks convinced me that the Government are sensitive to the threat that that poses for village sub-post offices. What I heard sounded like an urban agenda. Few of my rural constituents live within half a mile of a post office, which I think was the phrase that he used. The village post office is a key part of the social fabric of the countryside and the strategy for transferring the benefits business is confused for the sub-postmasters involved and for the public whose benefits will be involved.